In the United States, over 2,000 children (14 or younger) die in car crashes each year. It’s a grim statistic to start with, but the only thing worse than mentioning it would be not to.
The good news is that, if you’re reading this, the risk of something like that happening to you is dramatically lowered by your dedication to make the right parenting choices.
I’m not pulling that out of thin air – most fatalities happen because the children aren’t properly secured in a well-made, dedicated seat.
Choosing a solid car seat for a small car is complex if you don’t know the underbelly of the baby seat market.
I do know the industry and, today, I’ll be your insider.
I’ll dive right in by presenting my top picks.
Best convertible car seat for small cars – my top 7 picks:
|Image||Best Car Seat for Small Cars||Features||Price|
|Graco 4Ever DLX 4-in-1||CLICK FOR PRICE|
|UPPAbaby Mesa||CLICK FOR PRICE|
|Safety 1st Guide 65||CLICK FOR PRICE|
|Britax Grow With You ClickTight||CLICK FOR PRICE|
|Maxi-Cosi Pria All-in-1||CLICK FOR PRICE|
|Graco SnugRide SnugLock 30||CLICK FOR PRICE|
|Diono Radian 3RX||CLICK FOR PRICE|
1 – Best convertible car seat for small cars – Graco 4Ever DLX 4-in-1
This seat is the new and improved version of the classic 4-Ever seat by Graco. It was launched in 2019, introducing significant upgrades to what was already a great seat.
It comes as no surprise that it’s one of the top-rated products by users I’ve ever seen. At the time of completing this review, it boasted an approval rating of 98% (that includes people who gave it 4 or 5 stars).
Color me impressed.
Smart design and high-end materials spell longevity
This Graco lives up to the 4Ever name. It transforms into 4 modes of use (rear-facing and forward-facing harness, highback booster, and a backless booster) and will be the only seat you’ll use from birth to elementary school.
I’m yet to see a review reporting issues with the machine-washable fabric. What makes the most difference longevity-wise is the fact that, when safe and possible, Graco uses metal instead of plastic.
Easy to adjust and switch between modes
Graco‘s “safe adjust” 10-position harness allows you to adjust the headrest and harness height in one smooth motion. To do it, you just lift the velcro part on the front of the seat and pull on the strap coming out of the clip. This goes for both loosening and tightening the harness.
It’s effortless to switch between modes, and you don’t even have to rethread the harness. This is a massive plus if you’re using it for more than one child at a time.
If you’re wondering (and I’ve been asked this before), the harness is not removable.
Robustly built / on the heavy side
The seat feels sturdier than the vast majority I looked at for this guide. The heftiness means that it’s not light (weighs 22.8 lbs), but if you’re getting a convertible, weight is not your primary concern.
Better cover and shoulder straps
The cover of the DLX 4-ever is much easier to remove than it was with the previous non-DLX version of the 4Ever.
More importantly, the placement of the central strap button is more convenient.
It’s now easier to release the shoulder straps, and I’d say that the fit is also a peg better/snugger. It’s one of the best convertible car seats, and that goes beyond the “for small cars” category.
Features and size
- Size: 20 x 21.5 x 24
- ProtectPlus safety – this is a name Graco uses for their safety testing system. It meets or exceeds the safety criteria federal standards for frontal crash (as defined by the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 213)
- Integrated belt lock-off – allows for easy seat belt installation
- RapidRemove cover – takes about 1 minute to remove completely
- Rubberized harness storage
- InRight LATCH system – exclusive to Graco models, InRight takes but one second to attach
Why I love it
First and foremost, I love how Graco approaches safety testing. When it comes to structural integrity, Graco tests their seats at forces two times higher than those defined by the federal standards (acceleration speed and crash force).
They’re also transparent about their products which is a huge plus when building long-term trust. I remember how open they were back in 2014 when they recalled close to 3.8 million seats because they suspected faulty buckles.
Apart from safety and trust, I like it for a few reasons specific to this seat – the main ones are build quality of the base, foam, and fabric. It’s designed to be used for 10 years and, most of the time, it will be.
You can see a detailed comparison of the Graco 4Ever and Safety 1st Grow and Go here.
2 – Best Infant Car Seat for small cars – UPPAbaby Mesa
Adjusted to preemies* and small newborns
UPPABaby made a conscious effort to optimize (infant insert, harness, and crotch settings) the Mesa for babies on the smaller side, whether they’re born prematurely or not (you can see my guide on top bassinets for preemies here).
Premium materials at a reasonable price
From the robust base (that still feels light) to the wool blend of the fabrics, everything about UPPABABY Mesa carries a premium feel. Still, the price is not significantly higher – it’s in the same bracket as most of my top picks.
Zero damage to car seats
Mesa is one of the few seats with a bottom finish soft enough to minimize the risk of damaging the car seat.
If you already own a Vista or a Cruz (strollers that are fully compatible with the UPPAbaby Mesa) from UPPABaby, the seamless attachment (without adapters) will likely make this seat the obvious choice.
Features and size
- Size (with car seat on base): 27.5 x 17 x 24 “
- Size of the infant car seat alone: 26.4 x 17 x 23 “
- Unique tightness indicator (SmartSecure) – when the seat I installed correctly, the indicator turns green
- Low-profile bottom of the base with a soft finish
- No rethread harness
- Adjustable, re-reinforced headrest with side-impact protection
- Hideaway canopy (UPF 25+)
Why I like it
Uppababy Mesa is a premium product. It looks and feels luxurious top-to-bottom, side-to-side. It all comes with a price to match, which makes it my “money-doesn’t-matter” pick.
On the more practical side, it’s THE choice for babies on the smaller side and preemies.
Read more about my favorite infant car seat in my Uppababy Mesa review.
3 – Top budget pick – Safety 1st Guide 65 Convertible car seat
Compact / small footprint
One of the few seats out there that mentions “for small cars” in their advertising. With a footprint of only 20.2 x 18.5 inches, it’s THE top budget pick when every inch of the back seat space matters.
Minimal, practicality-oriented design
If you’re not a first-time parent, you can probably think back and remember all those zillion-in-one products that you only used in two or three positions.
The Guide 65 is stripped of gizmos- it’s a simple three-point harness with up-front adjustment and two modes of use – rear-facing and forward-facing.
It’s a US-made product with premium fabrics that’s small enough to fit 3-across in most cars.
Features and size
- Size: 20.2 x 18.5 x 27.2
- 5-point harness
- 5 harness heights
- Adjustable headrest
- Removable pillows
- Side Impact Protection
- 3 buckle locations
Why it’s suitable for small cars
You’ll notice I said “love” when talking about the Graco and “like” about Safety 1-st. The reason is that, while it ticks all the boxes and does it at a low price point, it’s not exciting.
Yes, car seats can be exciting if you’ve been reviewing baby gear for as long as I have.
But I digress; what I like most about this carseat is the fantastic value proposal. It’s simple and does the job, and it costs less than 10 months on Netflix.
That’s value if I ever saw one.
Britax seats are up there with Chicco and Graco in terms of safety features. They make some of the safest convertible seats out there, like the Emblem and the Allegiance. That same exclusive technology is used for the Grow With You.
Harness to booster
The one key benefit of this seat is in the name – Harness-2-Booster. It adjusts from a forward-facing harness (39-49 ” / 25-65 lbs) to a booster seat mode (44-63″ / 40-120 lbs).
The trade-off – it’s not for babies.
The combination of colors, textures, and stretch fabrics make the Britax Grow With You one of the most modern-looking seats I know.
Extra padding on the harness
The child rubbing against the strap is a common issue with lesser seats. Britax addressed that here with extra padding at those critical points. It’s the kind of attention to detail we’re looking for at this price point.
Features and size
- Size: 21 x 23 x 25
- V-shaped tether – reduces movement forces in a crash
- Steel frame
- Side impact protection for torso, head, and neck – three layers of it
- ClickTight proprietary installation system
- SafeWash fabric – flame retardant, machine washable knit cover
- Armrest and snack storage
Why I love it
I love Britax as a brand for the same reasons I love Graco – their approach to safety engineering, especially when it comes to the head area.
In my opinion, the Grow With You is one of the top 3 booster-to-harness seats on the market. Combine that with a small footprint of 21 x 23 inches, and you get one of the best infant car seats for small cars out there.
Maxi Cosi Pria ticks all the solid craftsmanship boxes typical for Western European manufacturers.
They have a storied history that dates back to 1984. While I have no way of checking whether their claim that “Maxi-Cosi introduced the first baby car seat in Europe” holds water, I can speak to what I’m seeing with their products today.
The padding of Maxi Cosi seats is generally better than that of most convertible car seats – all in terms of thickness, spacing, and finish/fabric.
Modern, colorful design
If color is a factor, you’ll love the range of pastel hues Maxi Cosi uses for their seats. They’re especially imposing when combined with minimalistic lines and dark hues of gray.
Exceeds safety standards
Most companies will say that their seats “meet or exceed safety standards.”
This is what Maxi Cosi says about their seat – “Pria All-in-One is backed by over 30 years of European engineering and exceeds all federal standards, including FMVSS 213.”
Notice the absence of the word “meets.”
Features and size
- Size: 25.3 x 23.6 x 20.3
- QuickFit Adjustment – integrated harness system and headrest
- In & Out harness holders – these keep the straps out of the way when buckling
- 3-Position Recline
- Fabrics can be washing-machine and dryer-friendly
Why I like it
I like it because of the extra rich padding and the premium craftsmanship.
In the context of small cars, there are more “in-spite-of” than “because” reasons to like it. The footprint is small enough (23.6 x 20.3 inches), but it does lean backward even in the neutral position, which means you’ll need extra space when you use it in rear-facing mode.
Easy, secure installation
The SnugRide car seat features Graco’s SnugLock installation (uses either LATCH or the vehicle’s seat belt). It locks onto Graco Click Connect strollers in one click.
Made to withstand extreme crash forces
I already mentioned that Graco is second to none when it comes to safety. They own a testing facility in Atlanta and employ over 90 certified passenger safety technicians who work with communities and help with selection and installation.
Their structural integrity tests use twice the forces used in federal regulations.
Features and size
- Size: 15.59 x 18.7 x 27.35
- SnugLock Technology – easy 3-step installation
- Adjustable base angle – four positions
- Storage for the LATCH connectors when not in use
- Click Connect attachment – connects to a stroller/base in one click (the stroller/base must be Click Connect, too)
- Rotating canopy
- Tested for extreme car temperatures
Why I like it
Apart from the Graco safety standards, I love how the sturdy base makes the small footprint stable enough for the generous seat and canopy.
Most seats with footprints this small are nowhere near as comfy as the Graco SnugRide, and the user ratings show it.
Miniature footprint and slim fit design
The footprint of the Diono Radian 3RX is only 16 x 17 inches, which makes it one of the smallest on the list.
It’s designed to fit three across the back seat of mid-size cars. This makes it an excellent option for using more than one seat in small cars.
Solid padding and finish
If it didn’t have to be comfortable and meet the safety standards, everybody would be targeting the “small-car” chunk of the car seat market. Diono Radian gets that balance just right – it’s tiny compared to most seats, yet, the padding isn’t lacking.
Features and size
- Size: 16 x 17 x 29
- 12-position adjustable headrest (rear-facing, forward-facing, and booster)
- Head support padded liner for infants (removable as you transition to the booster seat)
- SupperLATCH connectors for easy installation
- Reinforced headrest
Why I like it
Making a seat as narrow as the Diono Radian without skimping on the padding or sacrificing comfort is a serious feat of engineering. Hats down to DiONO for pulling it off.
On a more personal note, I love the vivid colors, especially the sky blue. It’s a refreshing change in a sea of gray and pastel hues.
Car seat for small cars – a complete buying guide
In the buying guide below, I’ll take you through the critical aspects of choosing the best convertible car seat for small cars. I’ll also address the infant vs. convertible dilemma.
If you didn’t like any of my picks, following the guidelines below will allow you to choose a seat that will use your car space efficiently so that neither your baby nor you are crammed up.
First things first – infant car set or a convertible car seat
This is the mother of all car-seat dilemmas – do you need an infant cart seat, or can you jump right into a convertible?
Infant car seats
You might also know the infant car seat as a newborn or a bucket seat.
If you’re a first-time parent, this question has probably crossed your mind at some point – “Why would I buy a car seat that will only last a year?”
The answer to that is simple. It’s because getting the whole thing in and out of the car is convenient.
What I mean by “convenient”
It’s easier for you and less stressful for the baby.
Babies aren’t really wired for dynamic days, and the fuss that comes with getting them in and out of the car can get too much. That goes double if you’re working with the limited space of a small car.
An infant car seat comes with a base that you install into your car, either with a dedicated latch or the car’s seat belt. They typically max out the weight limit at age one.
Convertible car seats
With a convertible car seat, you save some money by not spending extra on the infant seat. For most people, the convenience will be worth the extra hundred bucks, though.
They’re safer for babies at about age 1
A few years ago, a Consumer Reports (CR) study found that, at age one, a convertible car seat is safer in a simulated front seatback.
The testing was performed using a 22-pound dummy, which represented a one-year-old child.
In 53% of the tested convertible car seats, the dummy saw significant contact (strike) with a simulated front seatback.
With convertible seats, the number was much lower – 4%. The extra shells and more space of a convertible turned out to be safer.
You can see the full study here and a more detailed comparison of infant and convertible car seats here.
Limited applicability for small cars
My list includes both infant and convertible car seats. It’s because I feel that the results of this study are not directly applicable to choosing a car seat for small cars.
This is why
We don’t know what seats CR used in the study, and we have a limited pool of seats to choose from.
I wanted to present the options, the information, and the context so that you can choose for yourself.
Bear in mind that I said the results are not “directly applicable,” meaning they still are relevant, and it’s fair to say that a convertible car seat is generally safer.
It also means that height matters, and you’ll probably want to switch to a convertible before they get close to that limit.
Once the child maxes out the convertible, you’ll need to move to a booster seat. The main difference between a convertible and a booster seat is that the latter uses the car’s safety belts, while a convertible uses its own harness system.
You’ll be using a booster seat until the car belts fit well without it – typically when the baby is at least 4 ft. 9 in. high. Most kids will get there between the age of 8 and 12.
Related reads: my top 3-in-1 car seats
You might feel that a lot of what I’m saying here comes down to “it depends.” I’m not a fan of using that kind of language, but it really does depend.
The safety of convertible car seats has its limitations but so does the convenience of the infant seat.
Let me try and be as precise as I can
As I said, I’m not a fan of vague language and ‘buying guides’ leaving you with more questions than they answer. I’ll do my best not to be that guy today.
So, let’s work it all out in a few scenarios.
If you have a calm baby on your hands and your schedule is not hectic (doesn’t involve getting the baby in and out of the car all the time), getting a convertible car seat will be your best bet.
If all hell breaks loose every time you take your baby out of their seat, getting an infant car seat is OK, as long as you follow the height guidelines and switch to a convertible before they get close to the height limit.
The good news
Babies cry the most during the first 4 months, which means you can “use” the convenience of an infant car set and switch to a convertible way before they reach age one.
Footprint vs. overall bulk of a car seat
For small cars, the main baby-seat limitation is not the vertical space – it’s the distance between the rear and front seats.
That’s why I’d advise going for a seat with a small footprint. Once you have that down, move on to the weight and overall bulk.
Rear-facing vs. front-facing
There’s a lot of confusion around this one, while it’s really one of the most straightforward aspects of choosing a car seat.
The rule of thumb is that a child should use a rear-facing car seat for as long as possible, typically up until the age of 3 to 5. In an accident, the forces that act on a child in a forward-facing seat are up to 7 times higher than those measured in rear-facing seats.
Durability vs. longevity
I cringe every time I read an ‘expert’ review talking about the durability/longevity of car seats and use the terms interchangeably.
They’re not the same thing.
Durability describes the ability of a material to resist stress or force, while longevity describes the quality of being long-lasting. For our purposes here, the latter is more important.
It might sound counterintuitive because you want a durable seat that will keep your child safe, right?
Here’s what I mean – there’s no point stressing about durability when you’re getting a seat that meets federal safety regulations. That fact alone means it’s durable enough.
The material used for the rigid parts is polypropylene (PP), a non-toxic plastic that’s much more resistant to cracks than regular plastic. That’s true for all the good ones.
More of a factor for convertible seats
While the government can legislate durability because it directly affects safety, they don’t really care for the longevity of car seats.
But I do, especially when trying to choose the best convertible car seat. None of the good infant seats are likely to have longevity issues because you’ll be using them for less than a year.
A convertible car seat, however, is a whole different story. They’re meant to be used for years and two with your child.
The longevity comes down to the type of polypropylene used for the seats (homopolymer, random copolymer, and impact copolymer) and the quality of the fabric (ideally rugged but easy to clean, preferably machine washable).
Installation and setup
Once you get to the top brands, installation becomes a secondary factor.
For two reasons:
- Most of the better seats are well-thought-out and feature a LATCH system*
- You’ll only do it once, so it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker
*LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers For Children. It’s a system that uses straps to secure the baby seat onto the anchors of your car seat.
FAQs about convertible car seats for small cars
What is the smallest car seat you can buy?
These are the smallest car seats you can buy:
- Chicco KeyFit 30 (27.5 x 17 x 24 “)
- Graco SnugFit 35 (16.2 x 18.1 x 30.7 “)
- Clek Liing Infant Car Seat (27.75 x 16.9 x 27 “)
- Chicco Fit2 (28 x 17 x 16 “)
- Diono Radian (16 x 17 x 28.5 “)
What is the best and lightest car seat?
If weight is your main criterion, Maxi-Cosi Coral XP is the best and lightest car seat. The winning carrier weighs only 5 pounds, while the total weight (with the shell) is 12 pounds.
The runner-up is Nuna PIPA Lite at 5.3 lbs.
Final thoughts and takeaways
If I did my job well, this guide should be THE top resource out there for anyone looking to choose a good car seat for small cars.
I’m committed to keeping it updated, so even if you’re not buying anything today, bookmark it for future reference.
Yours in smart parenting choices,